Working hours more than just a labor and salary issue
The standard working hours issue, like the Mandatory Provident Fund’s severance/long-service payment offset, hurts Hong Kong because if employers and employees cannot come to an agreement, the animosity and distrust between them will only escalate. The new chief executive has promised to tackle these thorny issues but how? I shall defer the MPF offset problem until next week and would like to share some thoughts on the direction for going forward with working hours.
There are two key legitimate concerns. The first is that excessively long working hours harm health and safety — including sometimes public safety — and that for a developed economy like ours protection of health and the promotion of safety deserve greater attention and should be considered matters of top priority. The second is work-life balance. In particular, long hours undermine family life as parents with long working hours are too tired and have too little time to spend with their children. Children unable to grow up happily will only mean problems down the road.
Employees, unfortunately, seem to focus more on whether they are adequately compensated for extra hours of work. With standard working hours defined, they can expect their employers to pay more on extra working hours.
In 2013, the government set up the Standard Working Hours Committee to study the subject. After several years of discussion, regrettably, employee representatives walked out convinced that employers would simply deny their demands. In the end the committee, in the absence of employee representatives, produced a policy package finally adopted by the government. As expected, there would be no legislation on standard working hours and employers would only be asked to have an explicit contractual agreement with employees as to normal working hours and how workers were to be compensated if they worked in excess of the normal hours. This new requirement applies only to employees who earn no more than HK$11,000 a month. The government would also offer “guidelines” for working hours and overtime pay in selected industries “for reference”. The government promised to review the effectiveness of the policy two years later.
I can understand the frustration of workers. The “contractual hours” proposal is not what workers wanted. Moreover, restricting the policy to workers earning no more than HK$11,000 a month seems incomprehensible, since all contracts should be transparent.
In an earlier column (Nov 20, 2012) I had asked that statutory maximum working hours apply across the board. The statutory maximum working hours would spell out the maximum hours employees could work over a specified period. For example, average weekly hours in a month must be no more than, say, 55. If workers work excessively in one week they need to take The author is dean of business at Chu Hai College of Higher Education.
time off in some other weeks within the month. Workers cannot agree to work beyond these hours over an extended period, because excessive working hours are unhealthy and could even kill.
While I still believe we need a statutory maximum working hours I am prepared to accept that there can be standard working hours for specific occupations in specific industries. These standard working hours will vary from occupation to occupation and can be any number ranging up to 55 hours a week. This to me makes perfect sense. Just think about the difference in physical and mental intensity for working as a bus driver versus working as a caretaker in an apartment block. Even though both occupations involve working while sitting, a bus driver has to be attentive all the time, and is responsible for the safety of passengers and other road users, while a caretaker could doze off momentarily without risking any lives.
A recent study from the International Labour Organization referred to a Fatigue Risk Management System that was developed in the transport sector, underscoring the fact that job requirements do vary from sector to sector. Given that the operational environment and degree of competitiveness also vary from sector to sector, mandating anything like eight or nine hours a day, five days a week would produce great difficulties in some sectors, leading possibly to layoffs and hurting worker welfare.
It appears that the contractual-hours framework proposed by Leung Chun-ying’s administration is a good start and should apply across the board rather than just to low-income workers. Some may argue that for professionals and executives any specified working hours may not be appropriate, as the distinction between work and not working is really blurred. Yet the contract should still spell out the conditions for the work; even if the upper limit of 55 hours a week over each month is difficult to enforce for some professionals and executives, the presence of this statutory limit is still educational and will convey the important message that excessively long working hours need to be contained. There is plenty of evidence that long hours may not only be counterproductive for the firm but also may add to healthcare costs and lead to many intangible social costs.
Pedestrians cast long shadows in dappled reflected sunlight as they take a yellow zebra crossing in Central.